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These lighters, in the shape of gondolas, rather wide and rather heavy, containing a small cuddy, covered by the deck, and a chamber in the poop, formed by a tent, then acted as passage-boats from Orleans to Nantes, by the Loire; and this passage, a long one in our days, appeared then more easy and convenient than the high-road, with its post-hacks or its bad, insecurely hung carriages. Fouquet went on board this lighter, which set out immediately. The rowers, knowing they had the honor of conveying the Superintendent of the Finances, pulled with all their strength, and that magic phrase, “the finances,” promised them a liberal gratification, of which they wished to prove themselves worthy.
The lighter bounded over the waters of the Loire. Magnificent weather, one of those sun-risings that empurple landscapes, left the river all its limpid serenity. The current and the rowers carried Fouquet along as wings carry a bird, and he arrived before Beaugency without any accident upon the way. Fouquet hoped to be the first to arrive at Nantes; there he would see the notables and gain support among the principal members of the States; he would make himself necessary,- a thing very easy for a man of his merit,- and would delay the catastrophe, if he did not succeed in avoiding it entirely.
“Besides,” said Gourville to him, “at Nantes, you will make out, or we will make out, the intentions of your enemies; we will have horses always ready to convey you to the inextricable Poitou, and a boat in which to gain the sea; and when once in the open sea, Belle-Isle is the inviolable port. You see, besides, that no one is watching you, no one is following you.”
He had scarcely finished when they discovered at a distance, behind an elbow formed by the river, the masts of a large lighter, which was coming down. The rowers of Fouquet’s boat uttered a cry of surprise on seeing this galley.
“What is the matter?” asked Fouquet.
“The matter is, Monseigneur,” replied the skipper of the boat, “that it is a truly remarkable thing,- that lighter comes along like a hurricane.”
Gourville started and mounted on the deck, in order to see the better.
Fouquet did not go up with him; but he said to Gourville with a restrained mistrust, “See what it is, dear friend.”
The lighter had just passed the elbow. It came on so fast that behind it might be seen to tremble the white train of its wake illumined with the fires of day.
“How they go!” repeated the skipper,- “how they go! They must be well paid! I did not think,” he added, “that oars of wood could behave better than ours, but those yonder prove the contrary.”
“Well they may,” said one of the rowers; “they are twelve, and we are but eight.”
“Twelve rowers!” replied Gourville, “twelve! impossible!”
The number of eight rowers for a lighter had never been exceeded, even for the King. This honor had been paid to Monsieur the Superintendent, even more for haste than out of respect.
“What does that mean?” said Gourville, endeavoring to distinguish beneath the tent, which was already apparent, the travellers, whom the most piercing eye could not yet have succeeded in discovering.
“They must be in a hurry, for it is not the King,” said the skipper.
“By what do you know that it is not the King?” said Gourville.
“In the first place because there is no white flag with fleurs-de-lis, which the royal lighter always carries.”
“And then,” said Fouquet, “because it is impossible it should be the King, Gourville, as the King was still in Paris yesterday.”
Gourville replied to the superintendent by a look which said, “You were there yourself yesterday.”
“And by what do you make out they are in such haste?” added he, for the sake of gaining time.
“By this, Monsieur,” said the skipper: “these people must have set out a long while after us, and they have already nearly overtaken us.”
“Bah!” said Gourville, “who told you that they do not come from Beaugency or from Niort even?”
“We have seen no lighter of that force, except at Orleans. It comes from Orleans, Monsieur, and makes great haste.”
Fouquet and Gourville exchanged a glance. The skipper remarked their uneasiness, and to mislead him, Gourville immediately said, “It is some friend, who has laid a wager he would catch us; let us win the wager, and not allow him to come up with us.”
The skipper opened his mouth to reply that that was impossible, when Fouquet said with much hauteur, “If it is any one who wishes to overtake us, let him come.”
“We can try, Monseigneur,” said the skipper, timidly. “Come, you fellows, put out your strength; row, row!”
“No,” said Fouquet, “stop short, on the contrary.”
“Monseigneur! what folly!” interrupted Gourville, stooping towards his ear.
“Quite short!” repeated Fouquet. The eight oars stopped, and resisting the water, they imparted a retrograde force to the lighter. It was stopped. The twelve rowers in the other did not at first perceive this manoeuvre, for they continued to urge on their boat so vigorously that it arrived quickly within musket-shot. Fouquet was shortsighted; Gourville was annoyed by the sun, which was full in his eyes; the skipper alone with that habit and clearness which are acquired by a constant struggle with the elements, perceived distinctly the travellers in the neighboring lighter. “I can see them!” cried he; “there are two.”
“I can see nothing,” said Gourville.
“It will not be long before you distinguish them; by a few strokes of their oars they will arrive within twenty paces of us.”
But what the skipper predicted was not fulfilled; the lighter imitated the movement commanded by Fouquet, and instead of coming to join its pretended friends, it stopped short in the middle of the river.
“I cannot comprehend this,” said the skipper.
“Nor I,” said Gourville.
“You who can see so plainly the people in that lighter,” resumed Fouquet, “try to describe them to us, Skipper, before we are too far off.”
“I thought I saw two,” replied the boatman; “I can only see one now under the tent.”
“What sort of man is he?”
“He is a dark man, large-shouldered, short-necked.”
A little cloud at that moment passed across the azure of the heavens, and darkened the sun. Gourville, who was still looking with one hand over his eyes, became able to see what he sought, and all at once, jumping from the deck into the chamber where Fouquet awaited him, “Colbert!” said he, in a voice broken by emotion.
“Colbert!” repeated Fouquet; “oh, that is strange! but no, it is impossible!”
“I tell you I recognized him, and he at the same time so plainly recognized me that he has just gone into the chamber of the poop. Perhaps the King has sent him to make us come back.”
“In that case he would join us instead of lying by. What is he doing there?”
“He is watching us, without doubt.”
“I do not like uncertainty,” said Fouquet; “let us go straight up to him.”
“Oh, Monseigneur, do not do that,- the lighter is full of armed men.”
“He would arrest me, then, Gourville? Why does he not come on?”
“Monseigneur, it is not consistent with your dignity to go to meet even your ruin.”
“But to allow them to watch me like a malefactor!”
“Nothing tells us that they are watching you, Monseigneur; be patient!”
“What is to be done, then?”
“Do not stop; you were only going so fast to appear to obey the King’s order with zeal. Redouble the speed. He who lives will see!”
“That’s just. Come!” cried Fouquet; “since they remain stock-still yonder, let us go on.”
The skipper gave the signal, and Fouquet’s rowers resumed their task with all the success that could be looked for from men who had rested. Scarcely had the lighter made a hundred fathoms, when the other- that with the twelve rowers- resumed its course as well. This position lasted all the day, without any increase or diminution of distance between the two vessels. Towards evening Fouquet wished to try the intentions of his persecutor. He ordered his rowers to pull towards the shore as if to effect a landing. Colbert’s lighter imitated this manoeuvre, and steered towards the shore in a slanting direction. By the greatest chance, at the spot where Fouquet pretended to wish to land, a stableman from the Château de Langeais was following the flowery banks leading three horses in halters. Without doubt the people of the twelve-oared lighter fancied that Fouquet was directing his course towards horses prepared for his flight, for four or five men, armed with muskets, jumped from the lighter on to the shore, and marched along the banks, as if to gain ground on the horses and horsemen. Fouquet, satisfied of having forced the enemy to a demonstration, was content, and put his boat in motion again. Colbert’s people returned likewise to theirs, and the course of the two vessels was resumed with fresh perseverance. Upon seeing this, Fouquet felt himself threatened closely, and, “Well, Gourville,” said he, in a low voice, “what did I say at our last repast at my house? Am I going, or not, to my ruin?”
“These two boats, which contend with so much emulation, as if we were disputing, M. Colbert and I, a prize for swiftness on the Loire, do they not aptly represent our two fortunes; and do you not believe, Gourville, that one of the two will be wrecked at Nantes?”
“At least,” objected Gourville, “there is still uncertainty. You are about to appear at the States; you are about to show what sort of man you are; your eloquence and your genius for business are the buckler and sword that will serve for defence, if not for victory. The Bretons do not know you; and when they shall know you your cause is won! Oh! let M. Colbert look to it well, for his lighter is as much exposed as yours to being upset. Both go quickly, his faster than yours, it is true; we shall see which will be wrecked first.”
Fouquet, taking Gourville’s hand, “My friend,” said he, “it is all planned; remember the proverb, ‘First come, first served!’ Well, Colbert takes care not to pass me. He is a prudent man!”
He was right; the two lighters held their course as far as Nantes, watching each other. When the superintendent landed, Gourville hoped he would be able to seek refuge at once and have relays prepared. But at the landing, the second lighter joined the first, and Colbert, approaching Fouquet, saluted him on the quay with marks of the profoundest respect,- marks so significant, so public, that their result was the bringing of the whole population upon La Fosse. Fouquet was completely self-possessed; he felt that in his last moments of greatness he had obligations towards himself. He wished to fall from such a height that his fall should crush some one of his enemies. Colbert was there,- so much the worse for Colbert. The superintendent, therefore, coming up to him, replied with that arrogant winking of the eyes peculiar to him “What! is that you, M. Colbert?”
“To offer you my respects, Monseigneur,” said the latter.
“Were you in that lighter?” pointing to the one with twelve rowers.
“Of twelve rowers?” said Fouquet; “what luxury, M. Colbert! For a moment I thought it was the Queen-Mother or the King.”
“Monseigneur!” said Colbert, blushing.
“This is a voyage that will cost those who have to pay for it dear, Monsieur the Intendant!” said Fouquet. “But you have, happily, arrived! You see, however,” added he, a moment after, “that I, who had but eight rowers, arrived before you.” And he turned his back towards him, leaving him uncertain whether all the tergiversations of the second lighter had escaped the notice of the first. At least he did not give him the satisfaction of showing that he had been frightened.
Colbert, so annoyingly attacked, did not give way.
“I have not been quick, Monseigneur,” he replied, “because I followed your example whenever you stopped.”
“And why did you do that, M. Colbert?” cried Fouquet, irritated by this base audacity; “as you had a superior crew to mine, why did you not either join me or pass me?”
“Out of respect,” said the intendant, bowing to the ground.
Fouquet got into a carriage which the city sent to him, we know not why or how, and he repaired to the Maison de Nantes, escorted by a vast crowd of people, who for several days had been boiling with the expectation of a convocation of the States. Scarcely was he installed when Gourville went out to order horses upon the route to Poitiers and Vannes, and a boat at Paimboeuf. He performed these various operations with so much mystery, activity, and generosity that never was Fouquet, then laboring under an access of fever, more near being saved, except for the co-operation of that immense disturber of human projects,- chance.
A report was spread during the night that the King was coming in great haste upon post-horses, and that he would arrive within ten or twelve hours at latest. The people, while waiting for the King, were greatly rejoiced to see the Musketeers, just arrived with M. d’Artagnan, their captain, and quartered in the castle, of which they occupied all the posts, in quality of guard of honor. M. d’Artagnan, who was very polite, presented himself about ten o’clock at the lodgings of the superintendent, to pay his respectful compliments to him; and although the minister suffered from fever, although he was in such pain as to be bathed in sweat, he would receive M. d’Artagnan, who was delighted with that honor as will be apparent in the conversation they had together.
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